WASHINGTON – In the aftermath of the Dubai ports dispute, the Bush administration is hiring a Hong Kong conglomerate to help detect nuclear materials inside cargo passing through the Bahamas to the United States and elsewhere.
The administration acknowledges the no-bid contract with Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. represents the first time a foreign company will be involved in running a sophisticated U.S. radiation detector at an overseas port without American customs agents present.
Freeport in the Bahamas is 65 miles from the U.S. coast, where cargo would be likely to be inspected again. The contract is currently being finalized.
The administration is negotiating a second no-bid contract for a Philippine company to install radiation detectors in its home country, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press. At dozens of other overseas ports, foreign governments are primarily responsible for scanning cargo.
While President Bush recently reassured Congress that foreigners would not manage security at U.S. ports, the Hutchison deal in the Bahamas illustrates how the administration is relying on foreign companies at overseas ports to safeguard cargo headed to the United States.
Hutchison Whampoa is the world's largest ports operator and among the industry's most-respected companies. It was an early adopter of U.S. anti-terror measures. But its billionaire chairman, Li Ka-Shing, also has substantial business ties to China's government that have raised U.S. concerns over the years.
"Li Ka-Shing is pretty close to a lot of senior leaders of the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party," said Larry M. Wortzel, head of a U.S. government commission that studies China security and economic issues. But Wortzel said Hutchison operates independently from Beijing, and he described Li as "a very legitimate international businessman."
Three years ago, the Bush administration effectively blocked a Hutchison subsidiary from buying part of a bankrupt U.S. telecommunications company, Global Crossing Ltd., on national security grounds.
And a U.S. military intelligence report, once marked "secret," cited Hutchison in 1999 as a potential risk for smuggling arms and other prohibited materials into the United States from the Bahamas.
Hutchison's port operations in the Bahamas and Panama "could provide a conduit for illegal shipments of technology or prohibited items from the West to the PRC (People's Republic of China), or facilitate the movement of arms and other prohibited items into the Americas," the now-declassified assessment said.
The CIA currently has no security concerns about Hutchison's port operations, and the administration believes the pending deal with the foreign company would be safe, officials said.
Supervised by Bahamian customs officials, Hutchison employees will drive the towering, truck-like radiation scanner that moves slowly over large cargo containers and scans them for radiation that might be emitted by plutonium or a radiological weapon.
Any positive reading would set off alarms monitored simultaneously by Bahamian customs inspectors at Freeport and by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials working at an anti-terrorism center 800 miles away in northern Virginia. Any alarm would prompt a closer inspection of the cargo, and there are multiple layers of security to prevent tampering, officials said.
"The equipment operates itself," said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency negotiating the contract. "It's not going to be someone standing at the controls pressing buttons and flipping switches."
A lawmaker who helped lead the opposition to the Dubai ports deal isn't so confident. Neither are some security experts. They question whether the U.S. should pay a foreign company with ties to China to keep radioactive material out of the United States.
"Giving a no-bid contract to a foreign company to carry out the most sensitive security screening for radioactive materials at ports abroad raises many questions," said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said President Bush "needs to explain what safeguards are in place at foreign ports to assure that operators are not jeopardizing our security."
"If a port operator has been identified as posing a potential threat to national security, it is only common sense that Americans should be working on site to assure U.S. security is taken seriously," Thompson said late Thursday. "If the President needs more U.S. Customs inspectors to get the job done, I'd be happy to lead the charge to get however many is needed to keep America safe."
A low-paid employee with access to the screening equipment could frustrate international security by studying how the equipment works and which materials set off its alarms, warned a retired U.S. Customs investigator who specialized in smuggling cases.
"Money buys a lot of things," Robert Sheridan said. "The fact that foreign workers would have access to how the United States screens various containers for nuclear material and how this technology scrutinizes the containers — all those things allow someone with a nefarious intention to thwart the screening."
The Hutchison deal in the Bahamas was flagged in a report in October by ATS Worldwide Services, a Florida firm that identifies potential risks for private-sector and government clients. Company officials said they shared the report with some officials in Congress, the military and law enforcement.
Other experts discounted concerns. They cited Hutchison's reputation as a leading ports company and said the United States inevitably must rely for some security on large commercial operators in the global maritime industry.
"We must not allow an unwarranted fear of foreign ownership or involvement in offshore operations to impair our ability to protect against nuclear weapons being smuggled into this country," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. "We must work with these foreign companies."
A former Coast Guard commander, Stephen Flynn, said foreign companies sometimes prove more trustworthy — and susceptible to U.S. influence — than governments.
"It's a very fragile system," Flynn said. Foreign companies "recognize the U.S. has the capacity and willingness to exercise a kill switch if something goes wrong."
Hutchison's ports subsidiary said in a statement Friday from its headquarters in Hong Kong it was confident that Bahamian customs inspectors will notify U.S. authorities whenever it is appropriate.
There are no U.S. customs agents checking any cargo containers at the Hutchison port in Freeport. Under the contract, no U.S. officials would be stationed permanently in the Bahamas with the radiation scanner.
The administration is finalizing the contract amid a national debate over maritime security sparked by the furor over now-abandoned plans by Dubai-owned DP World to take over significant operations at major U.S. ports.
Hutchison operates the sprawling Freeport Container Port on Grand Bahama Island. Its subsidiary, Hutchison Port Holdings, has operations in more than 20 countries but none in the United States.
Contract documents, obtained by The Associated Press, indicate Hutchison will be paid roughly $6 million. The contract is for one year with options for three years.
The Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration is negotiating the Bahamas contract under a $121 million security program it calls the "second line of defense." Wilkes, the NNSA spokesman, said the Bahamian government dictated that the U.S. give the contract to Hutchison.
"It's their country, their port. The driver of the mobile carrier is the contractor selected by their government. We had no say or no choice," he said. "We are fortunate to have allies who are signing these agreements with us."
Some security experts said that is a weak explanation in the Bahamas, with its close reliance on the United States. The administration could insist that the Bahamas permit U.S. Customs agents to operate at the port, said Albert Santoli, an expert on national security issues in Asia and the Pacific.
"Why would they not accept that?" said Santoli, a former national security aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif. "There is an interest in the Bahamas and every other country in the region to make sure the U.S. stays safe and strong. That's how this should be negotiated."
Flynn, the former Coast Guard commander, agreed the Bahamas would readily accept such a proposal but said the U.S. is short of trained customs agents to send overseas.
Contract documents obtained by the AP show at least one other foreign company is involved in the U.S. radiation-detection program.
A separate, no-bid $4 million contract the Bush administration is negotiating would pay a Manila-based company, International Container Terminal Services Inc., to install radiation detectors at the Philippines' largest port.
The U.S. says the Manila company is not being paid to operate the radiation monitors once they are installed. But two International Container executives and a senior official at the government's Philippine Nuclear Research Institute said the company will run the detectors on behalf of the institute and the country's customs bureau. U.S. officials said they will investigate further how the Filipinos plan to use the equipment.